Saturday, December 18, 2010

Writer's Block: A delightful romp down your own private hell hole!

"And there was that poor sucker Flaubert rolling around on his floor for three days looking for the right word."Dorothy Parker

I was sitting on the toilet the other day sobbing uncontrollably when it hit me, I’ve got a terrible case of constipation and an even worse case of writer’s block. Not that they go hand in hand but I’m pretty sure a three year old could put the two together. 

Welcome to every writer’s worst nightmare...Writer's block! I’ll be your hostess.

A Reticulo-Frontal Disconnection Syndrome, better known as writer’s block, has been the bane of every writer’s existence (with the exception of Stephen ‘that prolific bastard' King, and William ‘try to keep up’ Shakespeare) since the dawn of the literary landscape.

When the literary landscape packed up and moved to Paris, Gertrude Stein held a few salons and told everyone, "To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write." This was right after she also said, "Alice, these brownies you baked are making me feel all goobly-doobly inside and you're starting to look like a roast chicken." 

Let's not forget her almost obsessive use of repetition that made forming a paragraph look like eating cotton candy. Let's not forget her almost obsessive use of repetition that made forming a paragraph look like eating cotton candy.  Let's not forget her almost obsessive use of repetition that made forming a paragraph look like eating cotton candy. Let's not forget her almost obsessive use of repetition that made forming a paragraph look like eating cotton candy. See? Now doesn't that look like I've got something to say?

Easy for Gertrude, she had the surrealists on her side (or on her head, they were surrealists after all) For the rest of us, writing can be a vortex of fear and self loathing that sucks the soul into a carnivorous black hole and devours it like a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Unfortunately, it’s never going to be finger lickin’ good. It's more than likely going to taste like regret and shame covered in whipped cream.

Unlike herpes or syphilis, there isn't a lab test to confirm these wayward symptoms. So as blocked writers it’s hard to know if a) maybe you’re just gassy b) you’ve lost your narrative, whatever that is c) you’re hungover again or d) you’re having a complete and utter existential breakdown from which you’ll mostly likely never recover and will live out your sad, pathetic days with electrodes strapped to your head.

There are many theories about writer’s block. But they all boil down to one crazy crockpot of truth: To have writer’s block one must believe that what they’ve written or are going to write in the future will be and mostly likely is a steaming pile of shit.

After all, who gave us the right to play God? Creating worlds that don't exist, creating people that don't exist. It's a cryin' shame we didn't end up in the  math or science department. Those lucky bastards know there’s only one right answer for everything. Theoretically, they deal in absolutes. How quaint. With writing, the only absolute is the blank page in front of you. Taunting you. Mocking you. Daring you. Holding a misshapen gun to your head and asking...
Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?

If you were terrible at algebra you certainly wouldn't go major in it at college then cross your fingers and hope to heck you get better at it. They'd toss you out faster than you can say Integer? I don't even know her! Yet that's exactly what writer's do. The science of writing tells us this: Every writer has to write badly at some point. That means you, Mr. Faulkner. You too, Mr. Steinbeck and Mr. Hemingway. Don’t think for a moment there’s not a treasure trove of unpublished and embarrassing works written by these beloved  scribes,  hidden away in locked boxes in dusty attics that only some poor editor knows about. They've gone to bed every night terrorized by the same overwhelming thought; “Sweet Jesus, if there is a god, please don’t let anyone find this crap until I’m dead and buried.”

Usually after a weekend bender with a gaggle of sorority girls and a series of hideously demeaning jobs, there's a Susan Hayward moment of ambition, hope and bravado where you scream out yes! Yes! YES! I want to write goddammit!

I couldn’t be more proud of you. Now eat your pills.

So here’s  how this the delightful catch-22 works. Let’s say you’ve decided that what you have to say might actually be of some minor importance, so you start writing. But the stuff you write in the beginning may not be very good and you may not want to show it to anyone. It may even be downright embarrassing. This in turn, can cause you to think you’re not a very good writer. 

But you can only get better as a writer by writing. So you write more. Not bad, your friends say. You have a way with language. You understand it, words have learned to dance for you. Your creative writing teachers all say you show 'great promise'. And you do! But that last short story was…(insert terror and insecurity here) the next thing you know, you’ve got a nasty case of writer’s block from which there's no known cure except booze and pills and sex with strangers. 

Take heart if you still have one, even the best writer’s come face to face with this demonic literary fiend. Fran Lebowitz has had a  20 year case of writer’s block she now lovingly refers to as ‘writer’s blockade.’ She’s more than made up for it by being one of the most quotable women in the last few decades so don’t go breathing normally just yet. The rest of us are just going to have to deal with it by drinking ourselves silly like every other writer worth their weight in black ink.
Here’s a little pop quiz to see if you've got your average run-of-the-mill anxiety that plagues most people on the planet including your accountant and hairdresser or full blown writer's block...

1. You find yourself looking up 'female escorts’ as soon as you sit down to write.
2. You find yourself using the term ‘circling the drain’ a lot.
3. You hang at your local coffeeshop to write and have nothing to show for it except an extra 43 pounds from all the cinnamon buns you felt obligated to eat.
4. You used to think ‘staring off into space’ was part of the creative process. Now you’re sure it’s the first sign of insanity.
5. You thought getting back to basics would help get the creative juices flowing. You’ve spent the last 7 years on a Haiku about bunions.
6. Every time you sit down to write your novel, you come up with several amazing ideas for a new reality TV show.
7. You can’t sit down to write knowing the cat box hasn’t been changed all day.
8. You don’t own a cat.
9. You suddenly find your roommate, a dour legal assistant who’s still a virgin, endlessly fascinating.
10. You find it difficult to write unless you’ve been backlit.

If you answered yes to more than four, congratulations! You've not only wasted oodles of precious writing time reading this blog, there's a  good chance you've never be in a relationship with another human being or you're being restrained by a nurse.

I wish you well as you stare down the abyss of an empty page.  As my favorite short story writer once said, "At times like these, it's probably a good idea to carry a small hand puppet." 
I'm sewing button eyes on an old pair of tube socks as we speak. 

"I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done." Steven Wright

"There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
W. Somerset Maugham

"I am at this moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip."
John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces)